Melkers Tackles Pandemic-Induced Social Innovations in New Research

Julia Melkers

Posted April 9, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has been a global exhibit in mass adaptation in higher education, as millions of students and professors have taken their classrooms to the internet. Lab closures, travel restrictions, and other limitations forced researchers to go online, as well.

School of Public Policy Associate Professor Julia Melkers, whose scholarship has often focused on collaboration in academic settings, saw an opportunity in the upheaval. She and her colleague, Eric Welch of Arizona State University, are embarking on a two-year study of how scientific teams — particularly those collaborating internationally — adapted and innovated during the pandemic.

Although technology enabled research teams to communicate and collaborate during the pandemic, they also had to shift, adapt, and socially innovate to function effectively in the online environment, Melkers noted.

Research groups also had to rethink activities such as brainstorming, setting research priorities, mentoring and on-boarding new researchers, and holding team meetings. For international teams, especially new ones that have to build trust and communication norms across borders and cultures, these adaptations face additional challenges, Melkers said.

"It's really about resilience — what are the ways that people change their behavior to be resilient to the barriers presented by Covid-19?" she said. "Ultimately, science happens at the human level."

Project Funded by NSF EAGER Program

Melkers and Welch have taken the first steps towards answering those questions by securing funding through the National Science Foundation's Early-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) program for their  two-year project titled "Assessing the Role of Social Innovation for Resilience in Global Collaborative Research."

This EAGER funding mechanism was designed specifically to engage with international partners for the purpose of improving international collaboration in the post-pandemic era.  In addition to a focus on teams originating in the United States, Melkers and Welch will be working together with colleagues from Spain, Austria, and Latvia to examine teams in those settings.

"The international partnerships make this project unique and globally relevant," Melkers said. 

The study will examine teams in four countries: the United States, Spain, Austria, and Latvia. Melkers and Welch selected the countries for their differences in scientific infrastructure and level of international research collaboration.

The study has two major components. The first includes a series of case studies of teams, with the data being largely qualitative and derived from interviews. The second will focus on producing actionable results, with a "follow-on" survey, focus groups with researchers, and an online workshop sharing critical takeaways on social innovation mechanisms.

The concept of social innovation refers to the specific adaptations that people and populations make, in this case, due to changes in their physical workspace.

A Highly Interdisciplinary Project

Melkers hopes to help develop an understanding of the types of innovations research teams used and which ones worked best.

The project is a highly interdisciplinary one by necessity, given the differing norms in different research areas. Melkers and her team will draw on the academic literature on social networks, institutions, and cultural norms to inform the project's direction. They also plan to use bibliometric techniques to identify the groups to be studied in the project, leveraging Dimensions, a database specializing in linked research data.

Ultimately, Melkers hopes the work can help researchers, not just in navigating pandemic-related challenges but also in understanding how best to effectively work together in a world in which remote collaboration is likely here to stay.

"If people can't communicate and share that knowledge and work together effectively, a project won't be as successful," Melkers said. "Science is a social enterprise and it all boils down to social interactions and human behavior."

For more coverage of Georgia Tech’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, please visit our Responding to Covid-19 page.

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Denise Ward
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